Tuesday, 22 December 2009

‘Cumbersome treats

Whilst the BSG is adventurous with food, I would say that I will try most things once (except brain and heart, there’s something too fundamental about those organs for me). No, there aren’t many food places I wouldn’t go. However, when I was small I would crumple up my face in disgust at the thought of three rather watery and embarrassingly inoffensive foodstuffs: celery, cucumber and melon. They scared the life out of me.

Since childhood, I have grown to first to tolerate and later enjoy the first two, but strangely (with the exception of watermelon) the last still confounds my palate. There are no doubt far stronger and more extreme tastes and ingredients to worry about, but for me melon has a taste that sneaks up behind me, like water from a glass that’s just been through a dishwasher with an eggy plate. Eurgh. All wrong. I am fully aware that this is pretty outrageous as people love melon, so I’m the accepting responsibility as my own failing; my palate is simply not sophisticated enough. You won’t be finding any melon recipes here.

spices close

The cucumbers we know are perhaps not regular visitors to the shopping basket at this time of year when we are searching out darker colours and clunky flavours. Like strawberries, they are linked to a very specific time and place, be they floating in your Pimm’s, sliced in crustless white sandwiches or layered over a poached salmon. Think The Cookery Year, stopping just short of the aspic – brilliantly retro. They scream (or rather: gently insinuate) British summertime. This was very much my train of thought this week as we were drawing and quartering our slender green victims - we spared them the hanging. Ironically I think these are more robust gutless; their flavour becomes more profound.

Being a fan of all things sharp I have always looked for a handy snack solution in cornichons and gherkins, and now we’ve found a recipe that perhaps exceeds even their sweet tangy hit, using the humble English cucumber. There are many nationalities of cucumber (who knew?), which predominantly fall into two categories: the smooth slicing variety and the nubbly pickling variety. The Romans introduced the vines to Europe (the Emperor Tiberius was rather partial to a cucumber a day and ladies used to wear them hanging around their waists for fertility...hope they changed them once in a while.) Just to confuse, this recipe breaks the rule and pickles the slicers.

snozcumbers Our helpless prey, disembowelled and cut into finger-lengths, was pared with a peeler into fairylike translucent ribbons, glistening with moisture, unaware of the imminent parching, salting and smothering in a towel with sweet onions for a day, which doesn’t sound like fun if you’re a cucumber (or the towel). Being over 90% water, so many fruits shrink to so few jarfuls. As we packed them tightly and covered them with spiced vinegar, thoughts turned to the barbequed meats they’ll accompany in 2010. Wishful thinking: I shouldn’t think they’ll make it past January. With these nestling amongst pickled red cabbage and preserved lemons the cupboard is bursting with bright Christmas baubles; our special tree of treats.

The BSG was out one evening and I arranged a rendez-vous with my culinary nemesis: sugar syrup. How something so simple in essence has become a dreaded silvery foe is a mystery – it has a sly habit of waiting until my back is turned and then burning (it never misbehaves for the BSG). On a pipe-dreamy trip through Fortnum & Mason yesterday, I lost myself amongst the turquoise towers of Turkish Delight, Florentines and those thoroughly grown-up-sounding treats: Marrons Glac├ęs. Having seen our guardian angel Hugh F-W demonstrate these on his bumper River Cottage Christmas programme, I felt confident enough to attempt them for our homemade hampers, alongside some very successful chocolate-covered orange peel (yup, the BSG made that).

pickeld cuc 2

Anyway, back to the sugar syrup. Last night it had my full attention. Sugar and water: two basic ingredients for goodness sake! How hard could it be? (Going on that theory, I should have mastered poached eggs many years ago, yet they have only just stopped being an ordeal). The process of peeling the skin and astringent membrane off the freshly-boiled chestnuts was certainly more time-consuming than I’d first envisaged, so there was a bit of juggling between them and the syrup, just to check it was behaving itself. Not relaxing, despite a soundtrack of Classic FM carols to keep away the Scrooge-like thoughts. I very much enjoyed singing through the pain to every carol ever written but, in fact, if I were to repeat the process I’d try ready-cooked and peeled numbers next time, to save my raw thumbs and husk-embedded nails – not a perfect look for Christmas parties.

This morning I wake up to a light dusting of snow on the wall outside and a crisp sugar-frost enrobes the chestnuts drying on the rack. Yip! I am definitely on a sugar high. Now all they need is a twist in greaseproof paper.

marrons glaces Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

One day in Bray

I’ve suffered a major disappointment recently. Completely unexpected and a bit of a shock, I feel let down and knocked for six. After many years of harmony, my trusty sidekick, my secret weapon, the Penfold to my Danger Mouse, the fabulous Panasonic Lumix with Leica lens decided to format its memory card, without any warning. A mid-life crisis, perhaps? Let’s hope it’s just a phase.

It can’t be an act of rebellion - it’s not as if I’d ever mistreated it. On the contrary, my compact, sleek companion has accompanied me on many colourful adventures. Most recently, it was a special guest at the BSG autumn feast at the Hind’s Head in Bray, documenting an afternoon’s merry gorging through British pub favourites expertly composed by Heston Blumenthal’s crack team. It captured the moment of oozing perfection as the first crisp Scotch egg was sliced open to share, billowing peppery steam. (For the more delicate in the group, this bar snack proved the perfect reset button.)

I can’t deny that the picture opportunities on the pre-blowout march had been weak (unless you have a penchant for asphalt and Eddie Stobart). After a couple of wrong turns we found ourselves ambling, not along the meandering Thames, but alongside the screaming M4. Bracing indeed. The Lumix took a great picture of us, dressed for the country, flat-capped and buffeting about in the slipstreams – a masterpiece, though it’ll have to be in your mind’s eye now.

After a delightful trudge round a building site, we spent the next hour looking for a way to cross back over the river to Bray, only to wind up in Maidenhead (where we’d started). Thank goodness for Brunel’s mighty railway bridge, comprising two flat brick arches which were the biggest in the world at time of building. These red vaults are impressive even now, with First Great Western juggernauts roaring across them every few minutes (you might have thought about a footbridge too, Isambard). A good minute was passed as we stood, hollering for the impressive echo (no, there were no children with us…) As we waited for the late crowd (who’d spent considerably longer on the motorway than we had), we decided that it would perhaps be better to consult a walker’s guide next time.*

In the warmth of the pub, the cold air banished, the walk becoming a distant memory and the feelings coming back into our extremities thanks to the aforementioned magic bar snack, we were ushered upstairs to our table under a high, vaulted ceiling. The late autumn sunlight streamed through the windows, illuminating the silver and glass – it all felt like a bit of an occasion. The menu comprised a list of British faves; creatures from air, land and sea, seasonal vegetables and traditional accompaniments. How lovely when you’re hungry to order something that you know you’ll love. Potted shrimps in a spiced butter with brown bread and a watercress salad started me off, whisking me momentarily Norfolk-wards. The shell-averse BSG enjoyed slivers of raw Scotch beef dressed with capers and shallots, beautiful to behold but - unfortunately for me no proffered fork this time - gone in a flash.

The blade of beef that followed was rich, earthy and gelatinous, it looked like a steak but fell apart at a nudge. The BSG and several others had the roast whole partridge, with Savoy cabbage, bacon and bread sauce. Hearty fare indeed. Simon tucked into a venison pasty, which was a surprise hit of the day. It arrived on a wooden board with a tiny jug of gravy on the side, sitting humble and looking a bit dry and sorry for itself. But how its appearance deceived! The pastry was somewhere between crumbly and crisp, the meat inside beautifully seasoned and cooked: it was a mouth party. The triple-cooked chips that had been so greatly anticipated did not disappoint the crowd, crisp and golden-skinned giving way to floury potato in a satisfying crunch. As for the sprouts, they were just right; leafy, swathed in butter and all shapes and sizes, as if they’d just been dug up from Mr McGregor’s garden by Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter (but enough about the leaves, lest this blog skates dangerously close to becoming the BSG: Boring Sprout Geek.) Being late November, it was dark and misty outside as we settled our very reasonable bill, wrapped ourselves up once again and spilled rosy-cheeked out into the night, which was yet young.

Lazy Sunday mornings; winter’s outside, London’s swathed in chilly fog and a low, lemony light. Some people might like to relax, perhaps stick their noses out and wander to get some papers. Not the BSG. The morning after the night before (which we’d all made sure had aged in style), he had a plan: to try and replicate the amazing mouthful that had been our Hinds Head’s highlight: the Scotch egg.

Firstly, let me just tell you that in no way is shelling a soft-boiled quail’s egg relaxing. Au contraire - for us both, it was almost a deal-beaker. There must be a technique but for the life of us we don’t know it (though somebody has since told me that the shorter the best before date the easier they are to peel). Thank goodness we’d only decided to do four. After two minutes in boiling water, the speckled numbers were painstakingly rolled and peeled, before being carefully swaddled in pork mince blended with lots of cayenne and ground black pepper. Then for the double coating of flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs (Japanese Panko crumbs are probably the best for high crunch factor but we used the end of an old loaf), and a five minute spell in the freezer to firm up, before a plunge into a pan of hot vegetable oil for 2 minutes or until golden brown and 3 minutes in a hot oven. If this all sounds like a bit of an ordeal but I have to tell you it was absolutely worth it. Crisp on the outside, warm peppery and unctuous within, we were proud to have produced them. We’re taking some on our wintry walk next weekend, to keep everyone warm and accompany the mulled wine (but really to show off).

knole park

* There will be a next time. Just as well really, I’ll take two cameras.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009


Sorry for the silence, I've been ill.
Worse than that, a sick sort of ill - not ideal for someone so accustomed to eating with abandon. The BSG has been nursing me back to fighting-fit by way of baked potatoes and hot water bottles.
A new post is almost here, as is Christmas. The flat smells of oranges and cloves, trays of mince pies have been seen coming out of the oven: the BSG has been busy.